John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

It was, after all, a mere day and a half short of full moon.

By contrast with the thegn, Master Bulderbrime was in a high good humor. Walking through the back rooms of his home, that also served as shop, factory and warehouse, he no more than cuffed any of his apprentices today, not once employing the tawse that hung at his belt for administration of severer punishment.

“Here are eleven candles almost the weight of twelve!” he barked at one child, charged with bearing finished work from the ranked poetry molds to be checked on the steelyard-but even she and the boy who had filled the molds escaped with mere open-handed slaps. Satisfied that they were dutifully trimming the surplus wax to be re-melted, he continued.

“Not so lavish with that essence!” he growled at a boy engaged in adding perfumes, drop by drop, to a mix of oils for the most expensive lamps. “Don’t you know it conies from Alpraphand? Hah! I’ve half a mind to make you walk such a distance on this floor, to brand in your memory knowledge of how far that is! Still, that would take you weeks, and I’ll neither feed nor clothe you ‘less you’re working hard to pay for it!”

Accordingly that apprentice too got off with a smacking.

Persuaded at length that all was well below, as much as affected the making, storing and vending of his wares, he proceeded to the upper floor. This was partitioned into three large chambers. First he came into his own, luxurious, where a couch stood upholstered in deep warm bear-hide and a little girl was industriously polishing a pier-glass.

To her, he said nothing; to himself he murmured that it was a pity she was destined for the eventual requirements of Lord Garch. Otherwise…

Still, there must be no breath of scandal about this house! If there were, respectable folk would cease to apprentice their brats with him, who kept no wife nor even a serving-maid. For that reason, the two other rooms on this story could be locked at night, and the keys remained always under his hand. One room for girls, the other for boys, they were in most regards identical, each containing heaps of rags soiled by long use and troughs into which at dawn and sunset he poured bucketfuls of gruel for the apprentices to lap. Now and then he also accorded them scraps of bacon and the outer leaves of cabbages: experience having shown that without a morsel of meat and a nibble of greens, the children grew sickly-hence unprofitable. He begrudged the cost, but tolerated it.

One further door remained at this level, and he opened it with the smallest of his many keys. Beyond was a steep flight of steps, hardly more than a slanted ladder, which he climbed. Despite the effort it required to haul his bulk to the top, he was humming a cheery strain when he emerged into the attic that it led to: a large open space lighted by two dusty dormers, lately re-floored with well-planed boards that did not creak.

Below, although they applied themselves to their work, the apprentices found time-as usual-to whisper and make gestures with offensive import. One boy of fourteen, bolder than the rest, and inured to being beaten for his obduracy, filched a more-than-finger-sized piece of wax and began to shape it into a human form. Pausing beside him, a girl who might have been pretty before a pint of Bulderbrime’s hot tallow seared a puckered scar down her left cheek offered criticism and comment. Others gathered to see what was happening, and suggested improvements. In a little while the likeness to their master was unmistakable, and they chuckled and clutched at one another in delight.

When the doll was perfected, they hid it in a chink between the planks of the wall, to furnish further amusement at some future time.

Above, unaware of this, Buldebrime approached the center of his attic room. There stood a stool and a table bearing a number of books bound in leather from unconventional sources. Also there was a brazier, and a locked aumbry with carven doors hung from a main-post of the roof. The lamp-maker opened this last, and removed from it a number of small articles: a bundle of feathers, a bag of herbs, and some powders.

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